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Historicist: Bursting into the Modern Age

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Benvenuto Apartments. Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda, 1955.


When hotelier Isadore Sharp and his wife wanted to build a new mansion, they drove around the city looking for ideas before turning to Peter Dickinson, who had designed the first Four Seasons hotel for Sharp on Jarvis Street. “Well if you’d like me to build something mock-Georgian,” Dickinson told Sharp, referring to the style of architecture so popular in mid-century Toronto, “you don’t really need me. If you’d like me to do a house, allow me to do something that would suit you.”
Although many though the brash architect was arrogant, Sharp realized, “He wasn’t being insulting…he was being honest.” The result, built in 1960, was a distinctly modern house, complete with sweeping stone wall, blending smoothly into its North York surroundings.
The English-born architect shook up the Toronto establishment in the 1950s. Bucking existing architectural trends, he introduced modernism to the city with buildings like the Benvenuto apartments. And, with a new breed of real estate developers as his wilful accomplices, he introduced a worldly influence into the city’s streetscape. His spirited cocktail parties and outspoken nature were a shot in the arm of staid Toronto society.
He had a very short career in Toronto, lasting only about eleven years, before dying of cancer in July 1961, just shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. But as Alan Jarvis, bureaucrat and design enthusiast, eulogized Dickinson to Adele Freeman in Sight Lines (Oxford UP, 1990): “[N]o architect has made such an impact on the Canadian scene in so short a time.”


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Benvenuto Apartments. Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda, 1955.

Dickinson was introduced to modernism while studying at the Architectural Association in his native London, U.K., in the 1940s. A top student, he graduated with honours in early 1948 and sat the examinations for the Royal Institute of British Architects later that year. Dickinson practised for a short time in England, winning third place in a design competition for the Festival of Britain, before answering—at the urging of his new wife, Vera, an Austrian socialite—to accept Forsey Page’s offer of a job as chief designer at his Toronto firm.
They arrived in Toronto by boat-train from Halifax in mid-May 1950. After finding a basement apartment off Avenue Road, he was at work at Page & Steele within days. In practice since 1925, the firm was one of several that had greatly contributed to the omnipresence of mock-Georgian architecture in the city. At the time, Toronto was, as Christopher Hume put it in the Star on May 3, 2003, “a dreary outpost full of red-brick Gothic piles dating from the 1800s.” Modernist architecture, with its light-filled geometric spaces, simply did not exist here.
Dickinson, however, was on a mission to transform the city. He was anxious to displace the old guard and unleash his new ideas. His ambitions weren’t a result of contempt for the city; they were a reflection of his civic pride. Dickinson addressed the Art Directors Club in 1953: “Three or four generations of immigrants have made Toronto the biggest and most prosperous English-speaking centre of Canada. It is a capital city—the capital of a Province—the capital of the most enterprising countries in the world with a phenomenal record of progress and achievement in modern times. Yet Toronto is shabby, dreary, and ugly.”
Drawing distinction between the established architects and an increasing number of immigrant architects in Toronto, such as Rod Robbie, Peter Webb, and Richard Williams—all of whom passed through Page & Steele—Dickinson told Martin Goodman of the Star: “This throbbing new economy had no new architecture. Canadians had it made and they went into their pigeonholes. They want to create cities Europe had two hundred years ago. Foreigners coming here are stunned by the complete absence of fine new buildings.”

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Benvenuto Apartments. Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda, 1955.

While many clients might’ve balked at Dickinson’s bold excursions in design, Dickinson found enthusiastic collaborators in the new breed of—predominantly Jewish—developer then gaining ascendance in the field of office and highrise development. “You really had to be from outside the city to see the potential,” developer Walter Zwig recalled to Freeman in Sight Lines. “We couldn’t see anything but excitement in this town. All the locals kept telling us we’d go broke. This city was developed by strangers because they were not inhibited by knowing about the past.”
Leon S. Yolles found Dickinson, still in his mid-twenties, in the upstairs drafting room of the Page & Steele offices. “They just got along famously,” engineer Morden Yolles told Freeman in Sight Lines. Father was a fairly forward-looking man, Peter was showing new things—there was a lot of energy there. Peter could both insinuate a certain style of architecture and meet the needs father stipulated.”
Of Jewish descent and raised in The Ward, Yolles had been a developer since the 1920s. Along with his younger partner, Kenneth Rotenberg, he had developed several high-profile projects, including the completion of the Park Plaza Hotel.
Yolles came to Page & Steele with an idea for luxury apartments on a remarkable site he’d acquired on Avenue Road, overlooking the city on the crest of the original shoreline of Lake Iroquois. He wanted a flat roof and big, open spaces. Dickinson obliged, using innovative flat concrete slabs instead of more conventional steel. Yolles’ son Morden, who’d recently graduated, was the structural engineer on the project and designed the concrete slabs.
Dickinson sought throughout his career, as he put it in an essay reproduced in John Martins-Manteiga, Peter Dickinson (Dominion Modern, 2010), “to encourage sincere unpretentious architecture, well located in harmonious urban surroundings.” The Benvenuto apartments represent one of his most successful efforts in this regard. As Freeman notes, the Benvenuto also included many elements that would become Dickinson signatures. He creatively sited the building to have monumental presence on a remarkable site, but also to be respectful of the streetscape and surroundings. He left visible the edges of the concrete slabs to show texture and accentuate the horizontal. Balconies, thin metal sashes on its countless windows, and cream-coloured brick were used to create form.

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Benvenuto Apartments. Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda, 1955.

The entranceway, as with many of his projects, featured a great, upward-sweeping canopy (that would only be outdone by the one at Dickinson’s O’Keefe (Sony) Centre). “The Benvenuto interiors are simple, spacious and thoughtfully planned: no marble, mirror or pomp,” Freeman writes. “Dickinson’s buildings, though stylish, are always modest. Light, landscape, and breathing space were the luxuries.” Completed in 1955, Morden Yolles called it “one of the first, if not the first truly modern building constructed in Toronto.”
Dickinson was so fond of his pet project that he and his family moved into a suite, where they became renowned for their lively cocktail parties, the likes of which had been previously unknown in Toronto society. The parties continued even after the Dickinsons and their two sons, moved into 500 Avenue (also one of his designs) in 1959. Macklin Hancock, urban planner of Don Mills, remembered the parties: “There was music, there was dancing. Any party they had was something to remember. It was a wonderful time. They lived in the city, and loved the city. It was a young city, and they could see it growing—they were helping it grow.”
For about eleven years, Dickinson prospered as an architect in Toronto, designing 111 Richmond Street West, the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, the Park Plaza expansion, and the Juvenile and Family Court among many others. With 801 Bay Street, Dickinson pioneered a new type of scissor stair (where two separate stairways were interlaced within a single shaft). Working very quickly, he would go from project to project, constantly sketching—even during cocktail parties.

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Juvenile and Family Court and Youth Centre, 311 Jarvis Street. Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda, 1957.

After designing the O’Keefe Centre, Dickinson left Page & Steele. Having almost single-handedly changed the firm’s focus to modern architecture (and attracted a large number of like-minded young architects to the firm), Dickinson was optimistic he might one day be made a partner. But the partnership never materialized and tensions with Forsey Page grew.
He formed Peter Dickinson Associates in January 1958, taking several architects and clients with him. Dickinson was driven to pursue new clients and high-profile projects, including the CIBC tower in Montreal. But, from all accounts, he wasn’t much interested in money. When it came to clients, he was far more interested in securing a design job than in collecting fees, frequently cutting fees to beat a competing firm to the project. To others in staid Toronto, his shameless pursuit of clients seemed arrogant or uncouth. Morden Yolles told Freeman: “He wasn’t afraid to knock on doors and go to the big boys. He was presumptuous. He wasn’t considered respectable. He was outside the community of architects. He ran around getting work in a different way. Architects weren’t behaving the way he was, running around and getting business. They certainly are now.”
Always regarded as a tad arrogant, Dickinson became especially outspoken, even antagonistic, after leaving Page & Steele. A diatribe he wrote for the Daily Commercial News in 1959 was reported as news in the Globe and Mail: “Professional restrictions and apathy on the one hand, and greed or ignorance by the developers and builders on the other hand, have created a situation where if we are not forceful, the next generation will inherit from us a wasteland of chaotic brick and block juke boxes and twisted telegraph poles, interspersed with forlorn and strumpeting grey stone elephants with punched windows.”

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Benvenuto Apartments. Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda, 1955.

Dickinson’s increasing public criticisms, including some levelled at Page & Steele for being too conservative and against his main rival, John C. Parkin, for his “Starkitecture,” contributed to the perception that Dickinson was ungentlemanly. In Toronto’s architectural establishment of the day, such grumbling simply wasn’t aired publicly. Though abrasive, his stimulation of debate and dissension was rousing the city’s design community from colonial complacency.
Since his death, Dickinson’s legacy had been obscured. Once fresh and innovative in a city where mock-Georgian was the established aesthetic, modern architecture became the new orthodoxy in cities across the world. “[M]any of Dickinson’s projects fail to impress. Though much lauded at the time, to contemporary eyes they look repetitive, formulaic, even churned out,” Christopher Hume reported in the Star in January 2010. Many of his buildings have undergone the wrecking ball; many more have had their urbane charm renovated away.
When the Benvenuto was the first 1950s building designated by the Toronto Historical Board, in January 1990, residents and neighbours were shocked. Even Morden Yolles told the Star at the time: “It’s peculiar to think of it with a historic designation….I have trouble with the notion something built in the 1950s is considered historic.”
For many years, his work seemed dated, and his legacy was overlooked. But in recent years his work has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Dickinson’s influence on Peter Clewes is undeniable. And John Martins-Manteiga’s recently published volume assures his legacy for another generation. Dickinson and his developer colleagues—outsiders all—transformed the city by energizing the city’s streetscape through modern architecture, and loosening up the stodgy establishment.
Other sources consulted: The Bureau of Architecture and Urbanism, Toronto Modern Architecture 1945-1965 (Coach House Press and , 1987 [2002]); Christopher Hume, Toronto Star, March 6, 2005; Dave LeBlanc, Globe and Mail, April 7, 2006; Susan Reid, Toronto Star, December 30, 1989.

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